by Dr. Yehezkel Landau
In recent decades, American society has become increasingly heterogeneous in many ways, including religious affiliation and practice. Our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces are becoming more and more religiously diverse. This trend presents new challenges, as we try to understand, and adapt to, unfamiliar customs, rituals, and other symbols of religiosity. Some people are threatened by this new reality. They fear that the America they love will be undermined by a multiplicity of religious expressions. Muslims, in particular, are seen by many as alien and threatening, partly because of the horrifying atrocities of September 11, 2001.
The mass slaughter perpetrated by a tiny number of fanatics is deemed an evil manifestation representative of an entire religion. And there are other religious minorities, including Jews and Hindus and Sikhs, who are often perceived as un-American and potentially menacing.
These distorted perceptions — which engender prejudice, discrimination, hatred, and occasional violence — are the true threat to our democratic society. Safeguarding our security and our civil liberties is a compelling reason for interreligious engagement. It is one crucial strategy for countering xenophobia and for promoting tolerance, good will, and mutual solidarity. This is a social responsibility incumbent on all Americans.
There are other good reasons to overcome our fears of the religious “other” and to actively foster interfaith understanding and cooperation. These rewards are more personal, supplementing the social consequences that benefit us all. They include: (1) increasing our religious literacy and our appreciation for the manifold expressions of spirituality; (2) making new friends across communal boundaries, thereby enriching our interpersonal relationships; (3) deepening our connection to the Divine by exposing ourselves to the variety of devotional practices; (4) enhancing our sense of beauty through the aesthetic riches in other religious cultures, including art, music, and architecture; (5) being inspired by the sacred stories and ethical teachings in the scriptures of other traditions; and, perhaps most important, (6) seeing ourselves in new ways that strengthen our convictions and commitments. For most interfaith practitioners will affirm that interreligious encounters help us to appreciate with greater clarity the distinctive wisdom of our own religious heritage.
In a time when religion is too often hijacked by extremists or manipulated by power-hungry politicians, we need to find ways of tapping the healing power latent in all our religious traditions. Especially in situations where disputes over territory or other material resources are made toxic by religious fanaticism, we need to live out our faiths in ways that genuinely reflect the universal values of justice and love. By joining forces constructively across the boundaries of belief, we can redeem the image of religion in our secularized age. Even more, we can serve God by building a more just, compassionate, and humane society, in the spirit of all our venerated prophets and sages.